Bizarre History: The Great Molasses Flood of 1919

Boston Molasses I’ve always wondered why some incredible events make it into the history books, while others are almost forgotten. Who determines which events are worthy of school child dioramas and which are not? We learned all about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the unfortunate members of the Donner Party. But what about the Great Molasses Flood of 1919?

What? You’ve never heard of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919? Well, me either, at least not until I stumbled upon it last week…and that’s my point exactly! Friends, kick back and prepare to listen to one of the most exciting chapters of American history to have ever been forgotten!

A Sticky Situation

Boston Molasses FloodThe date was January 15, 1919. The place was the North End of Boston, Massachusetts, one of the most intensely populated areas of the world at that time…it was actually on a par with Calcutta, India. It was an unseasonably warm day for January, a comfortable forty-one degrees. So, people came out of their winter hibernation in order to enjoy the day, and soon the streets were crowded with fun-seekers.

Purity Distilling CompanyMeanwhile, in the same part of town, the employees of the Purity Distilling Company were hard at work. The company was in the business of fermenting molasses to turn into rum and industrial alcohol. They had a storage tank of molasses that measured 50 feet tall, and 90 feet in diameter, and was capable of holding 2,300,000 gallons of molasses! As fate would have it, the tank had recently been filled, when disaster struck.

We often hear tornado survivors say, “It sounded like a freight train!” People near the plant reported hearing a sound like gunfire as the rivets popped off and the sides of the storage tank split open. And then, a “dull, muffled roar” as the rushing torrent of molasses flowed down the bustling city street.

Who Said Molasses Was Slow?

Boston Daily Globe - Molasses Tank ExplosionWhoever says that something is as “slow as molasses” has obviously never tried to ride a 15-foot wave of molasses traveling at speeds exceeding 35 miles per hour! Twenty-six million pounds of molasses tore down Boston’s Commercial Street. I just got a little sidetracked and I will tell you that, using Paula Deen’s recipe for gingerbread men, you should be able to make approximately 4,992,000,000 cookies with that amount of molasses! I’m pretty sure my calculations are correct, because, while I’m horrible at math, I excel at cookies.

Boston MolassesYes, this sounds like something from a Japanese horror movie or a Saturday morning cartoon, but it was serious stuff. The molasses moved with enough force to rip entire buildings from their foundations! It smashed houses, overturned wagons and broke the girders that had been supporting an elevated train track. The train collapse created a wave of molasses that measured 25 feet high. In today’s money, the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities’ website estimates that property damage was approximately $100 million!

In the Sweet By and By

Boston Naturally, property wasn’t the only thing damaged. Several blocks were flooded with molasses measuring two to three feet deep. As a child, you’re always warned about the horrors of quicksand, but no one warns you about molasses, which is evidently a much larger threat than quicksand for urban dwellers. Twenty-one people were killed. More than 150 people were injured. Many horses, cats and dogs also lost their lives.

People and horses were tossed through the air or stuck down like bugs on flypaper. Some were injured from flying debris. Some survivors reported having been unable to call for help, due to the molasses that clogged their throats. Many people drowned. It took four days to locate all of the victims. The Boston Police, the Red Cross, an Army battalion, and hundreds of Navy personnel worked the search and rescue effort.

Boston Molasses FactoryIf you’ve ever tried to clean a honey or pancake syrup spill, you can imagine the horror involved in this cleanup. After trying several methods, cleanup crews discovered that salt water could cut the molasses and wash it into the gutters. It took two weeks and an estimated 80,000 man-hours to rid the streets of molasses.

Making the Charges Stick

Of course, no one wanted to assume responsibility for the stickiest flood in history. The United States Industrial Alcohol Company, which was the parent company of the Purity Distilling Company, was quick to blame anarchists. Ooh, those pesky anarchists! The company practically painted a picture of sinister men, twirling their handlebar mustaches and plotting the demise of the company. They claimed that the sinister anarchists had detonated a bomb.

Boston MolassesInvestigators discovered, however, that the tank had been both hastily and shoddily built. The man in charge of the construction of the tank was not even an engineer or an architect. In fact, no engineer or architect was ever consulted on the project. It’s really quite remarkable that the massive tank had lasted almost four years, although nearby residents had always complained that the tank leaked. Using good ol’ fashioned American business ingenuity, the company had solved that little problem. Oh, no, they hadn’t fixed the leak; they had painted the tank the color of molasses, so the leak wouldn’t be noticeable! Remember, this was prior to the invention of duct tape!

The company soon found itself on the defensive side of 125 lawsuits. Ultimately, the company paid $600,000.00 in out of court settlements. Survivors of those who lost their lives received approximately $7,000.00 per victim.

Sweet Talk

Boston Molasses Flood LandmarkToday, the site where the molasses tank once stood is a recreational complex next to Puopolo Park. At the entrance of the park, there is a plaque that commemorates the disaster. It remains a little recognized and rarely mentioned piece of Boston’s history, though some people swear that, on a hot day, the streets still smell of molasses! I, for one, hope this story inspires school children to start churning out sticky dioramas to wow their Social Studies classes!
Here’s a wonderful video about the event, with excellent documentary photos. You’ll enjoy it!

Happy Trails, Y’all!
Anita Lequoia

The Day Winston Churchill Saved the War Horses

Churchill and horseIf you’re a regular visitor to the Campfire Chronicle, you know that I tend to stick with topics that are strictly Western in nature. There are a lot of good tales to tell and I will never run out of Western material, but it’s a big world out there! Sometimes stories that strike a chord with Westerners don’t actually happen in the West, and that’s why I’ve decided to take a departure in today’s edition. We’re going all the way to jolly ol’ England to talk about horses…war horses, in fact, and their unlikely savior, Sir Winston Churchill.

Hold Your Horses!

In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity. ~ Winston Churchill

ChurchillWorld War I left a lot of casualties in its wake, but Winston Churchill didn’t think that tens of thousands of war horses should be added to that number. During the war, the British military had purchased more than 1,100,000 horses from Britain, the U.S. and Canada. The initial investment was over $47 million USD and that didn’t include the amount spent to care for the horses between the years of 1914-1918. In today’s dollars, the initial investment to Britain was a staggering $2.3 billion.

The investment in horses had been worth it for the Brits. They had done the work that war horses do. They were used to transport weapons and supplies, mount cavalry charges, pull heavy guns and transport dead and wounded soldiers. The war horses suffered high mortality rates, often succumbing to exhaustion, harsh winters and direct hits from shelling. The loss of life was actually greater among horses than humans, during the battles of Somme and Passchendaele.

HorsesDuring the war, the British government had done everything possible to maintain a constant supply of horses. Farming horses were requisitioned from families who loved them. And, between the years of 1914-1917, approximately 1000 horses were shipped from the United States on a daily basis.

If Wishes Were Horses

Character may be manifested in the great moments, but it is made in the small ones. ~Winston Churchill

Horses in the warThere’s no doubt about it; the horses did their part to secure an Allied victory, but, when the war ended and the soldiers returned to their families, the horses were still stranded on foreign soil.

ChurchillForty-four-year-old Winston Churchill was Secretary of State for War at the end of WWI, but he had also served his time on the frontlines. When Churchill discovered the plight of the war horses, he refused to accept the status quo. The British military had vowed to return the horses to Britain, but it didn’t appear that they had vowed to do it in a timely manner. Horses who had served so valiantly continued to be at risk of starvation and disease. Many of them had even been sold to French and Belgian butchers, which Churchill found to be unconscionable.

War of Words

Never give in—never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. ~Winston Churchill

NPG x85330; Sir Travers Edwards Clarke by BassanoPerhaps one of the reasons Winston Churchill is so highly quoted is because he said so much, in so very few words. He knew all about words and he wasn’t afraid to use them, and he knew how to use them in the right way. So, when he discovered the plight of the war horses, he did what he did best . . . he fired off a power-packed message filled with some very carefully chosen words to Lieutenant-General Sir Travers Clarke, who was then Quartermaster-General!

In a document dated February 13, 1919, Churchill wrote, “If it is so serious, what have you been doing about it? The letter of the Commander-In-Chief discloses a complete failure on the part of the Ministry of Shipping to meet its obligations and scores of thousands of horses will be left in France under extremely disadvantageous conditions.”

The man made a good point. I would say that being sold to butchers would be extremely disadvantageous!

Waiting for Their Ships to Come In

You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life. ~ Winston Churchill

ChurchillThanks to Churchill’s intervention, additional ships were quickly allocated to return the equine soldiers to the land for which they had so valiantly fought. Up to 9,000 horses per week discovered that their ships had come in!

War HorseThe plight of the war horses was one that had largely been forgotten until Steven Spielberg decided to make a little movie, which was based on a play, which was based on a 1982 children’s book, by Michael Morpurgo! The book, play and movie are all simply called War Horse. While that story tells of the attempt of a young man to be reunited with his beloved farm horse, the unfortunate fact is that very few horses were actually returned to their original owners.

War and Peace

Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality that guarantees all others. ~ Winston Churchill

ChurchillAs it turned out, World War I was the last time horses were used on such a massive scale in modern warfare. By the time WWII broke out, war horses had largely been replaced by tanks.

Churchill was known as a lover of all creatures great and small, and his most famous quote speaks directly to that:

“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”

In the case of Sir Winston Churchill and Britain’s war horses, it would seem to me that there was something about the inside of one man that was very good for the outside of thousands of horses!

Here’s a mini-bio of Sir Winston that I think you’ll enjoy, from the Biography Channel!

Happy Trails y’all!
Anita Lequoia

Cowboy Etiquette: Mind Yer Manners!

Cowboy etiquetteWelcome to the Campfire Chronicle’s first etiquette class. We won’t be discussing which fork to use, or whether or not it’s acceptable to wear white after Labor Day. Nope. This is still the Campfire Chronicle, after all. We’re not going to talk about any old etiquette; we’re going to talk about Cowboy Etiquette!

Etiquette is defined as, “the customary code of polite behavior in society or among members of a particular profession or group.” Some people might be surprised to think about cowboys as having their own brand of etiquette. Cowboys are often thought of as being a little rough around the edges, bit in reality, most cowboys and cowgirls are downright mannerly!

Here are a few of the basic rules of cowboy decorum…

Hats Off

Hats offHats are such a big part of cowboy attire that it’s no wonder there are certain rules regarding when to wear them, when to remove them and when to tip them. Hats should be removed during prayers or the singing of the national anthem. Men should remove their hats when they are introduced to a lady. Hat hair is never an excuse for bad manners.

Cowboy hats should be removed in places of worship, courtrooms and, generally, in private homes. If you’re at a private home and everyone else is wearing a cowboy hat, it’s acceptable to go along with the crowd, though. If you’re in a restaurant, that serves anything that isn’t coated in barbecue sauce, it’s probably best to lose the hat. And, for the love of all that is good and holy, please don’t wear your cowboy hat if you’re sitting in front of me in a theater!

There are also some rules when it comes to hat tipping. Cowboy gentlemen tip their hats to ladies, when they are outdoors. But, they NEVER tip their hats to other men. That’s the cowboy equivalent to calling a man, “Nancy!”

Hat tipping techniques include the Brim Tip and the Forward Tip methods. To properly conduct the Brim Tip method, grasp the brim of the hat between your thumb and two fingers and raise the brim, ever so slightly. The Forward Tip method means that you grasp the front of the hat crown, lift slightly and tilt the brim forward. Of course, both methods should include the obligatory head nod. Otherwise, you might look like you’ve just got an itchy scalp! Oh, yes, the head nod is very important!

I cannot stress this final point of cowboy hat etiquette enough. Never touch another fellow’s cowboy hat without permission. And you might want to think about getting that permission notarized! Wars have started over lesser offenses! Seriously, don’t touch a cowboy’s hat. I’m pretty sure that’s written somewhere in the book of Leviticus.

Cowboy Diplomats

There are reasons cowboys are so often portrayed as the strong, silent types. A mannerly cowboy knows when to keep his thoughts to himself. He has plenty of opinions, but he doesn’t give unsolicited advice. As John Wayne once said, “Talk low, talk slow, and don’t say too much.” A cowboy isn’t likely to tell you that your dog is dumb, your children are dumber and your wife can’t cook. That doesn’t mean he isn’t thinking those things, but he doesn’t have to say everything that pops into his head.

On the other hand, don’t ask for a cowboy’s opinion unless you actually want it. You might want to consider the possibility that you can’t handle the truth before you ask a cowboy if he thinks you got a good deal on a thirty-year-old horse. He might play the diplomat and say, “If that’s the kind of horse you wanted, you sure got one, alright!” Or he might tell you more truth than you wished to hear. It could go either way.

Stable Manners

Blog5There are also some basic rules of etiquette when it comes to working on a ranch. First and foremost, cowboys know how important it is to give a day’s work for a day’s wages. They show up on time (and by “on time,” I mean about fifteen minutes early). You won’t find an honest cowboy lollygagging around when there’s work to be done. This is one bit of cowboy etiquette that I wish would go mainstream.

Don’t touch another cowboy’s equipment without permission. Remember the point about not touching someone else’s cowboy hat? Most cowboys and cowgirls are generous to a fault, but that doesn’t mean you can just take their things without asking.
When riding horses, don’t cut off other riders. You’re not on the autobahn! Never ever ride between another rider and the herd. Stay behind the herd. The air may not always be sweet there, but at least you won’t make any enemies.

How many times did your mother tell you, “Shut the door! Were you raised in a barn?” The irony is that cowboys know when to open and close a gate. An open gate that should be closed can be a recipe for disaster. If two cowboys are riding in a pickup truck and they need to pass through a gated area, the person in the passenger seat does not need to be asked to open the gate. It’s as second nature as knowing which vehicle should go first at a 4-way stop. At a closed gate, the person on the right always gets out to open the gate. He waits until the vehicle has passed the gate and then closes it. Unless there is a reason for it, gates are always left as they were found.

A cowboy always takes care of his horse first. After a morning of work, a cowboy is probably hungry, tired and thirsty. He has sense enough to know that his horse is, too. The horse’s needs take priority.


Blog8Most of the rules of cowboy etiquette are based on good, old-fashioned respect. These things are passed down from one generation of cowboys to the next without a lot of hoopla. But, my list is far from all-inclusive. In fact, I would love to hear any additions you want to contribute to the list! Until then, I’ll just be cleaning up around the ol’ campfire. Because, as I’m sure you know, a good cowboy always leaves a campsite a little better than he found it!
Happy Trails, y’all!
Anita Lequoia

The Lady Outlaw, Pearl Hart

Pearl HartIf you think the Women’s Liberation Movement didn’t begin until the 1960s, you need to think again. The women of the Old West proved time and again that they could do anything that the menfolk could do, well before the movement had a name. Women could ride and rope with the best of them, and they could shoot a gun, rustle cattle and rob a stagecoach too. Yup, women could become outlaws too, and case in point is a lady named Pearl Hart. Oh, sure, Pearl Hart may not be the poster child for the equal rights movement, but she did make an argument for the fact that women can do anything that men can do.

When telling a story, I try to piece together the most accurate historical facts available. But, it should come as no surprise that in Wild West history, sometimes the facts contradict! I often see storytellers spinning their yarns with the same certainty they would use to tell you that water is wet. But, I just can’t do that, in good conscience. However, this is my attempt to provide you with some of the most likely “pearls” of wisdom about the Lady Outlaw, Pearl Hart.

Hart of the Matter

Pearl Hart SittingPearl Hart was born as Pearl Taylor in Ontario, Canada. I’m not sure what the typical outlaw upbringing was like, but I’m pretty sure Pearl’s home life isn’t what made her turn to a life of crime. Her parents were relatively wealthy, religious and seemingly devoted to their daughter. She had advantages that were not common to women born in 1871. When she was sixteen, Pearl went off to boarding school, where she fell for a scoundrel of a young man. His first name is uncertain (It was probably either Brett, Frank, or William) but his last name was Hart. You can see where this is heading, can’t you?

Pearl and Whatshisname eloped, probably breaking her wealthy, religious and devoted parents’ hearts. And, no surprise, it wasn’t long before Pearl left Whatshisname and returned home to her mama. If only she had stayed there. But Pearl kept casting herself before her swine of an abusive husband, whose name has been long since forgotten. The two separated and reconciled multiple times. The Harts’ on again/off again relationship produced two children, a boy and a girl.

In 1893, the Harts went to Chicago, where Whatshisname worked as a sideshow barker and Pearl did odd jobs. Pearl became enamored with stories about the Old West.

Eventually, the little Harts ended up with Pearl’s mama, who was, by that time, living in Ohio. Pearl went gallivanting around the Western U.S., either with Whatshisname, or in the company of a piano player by the name of Dan Bandman. (Side note: I just found another possible name for Whatshisname. Frederick.) At any rate, the Harts finally broke for good and Pearl spent time drifting around Western mining camps.

Hart and Soul

Meet Joe BootIt is said that Pearl was fond of smoke, drink and morphine, but I just can’t say for sure. It is also said that she was thwarted in multiple suicide attempts. Then Pearl met up with a miner, who went by the name of Joe Boot and her life got really interesting. The two headed to Globe, Arizona and worked a mining claim.

They didn’t strike it rich and things were looking pretty glum when Pearl received a letter from her brother. The letter stated that Pearl’s mama was dying and that Pearl should head back to see her. Unfortunately, Pearl was flat broke. So, Pearl and Joe Boot hatched a plan.

Hart Attack

Pearl HartPearl and Boot decided to rob the Globe to Florence stagecoach. It was May 29, 1899 when Pearl dressed as a man and became the only known woman to ever rob a stagecoach. It turned out to be the next to last stagecoach robbery in Old West history. Boy, she got in just under the wire!

There were only three passengers on the stagecoach, but Pearl and Boot collected $421 and a watch. One thing is for sure. . .Pearl Hart did have a heart, because she then returned $1 to each victim, so they would have some money for food.

Hart TrialPearl and Boot were soon caught and were put on trial separately. Pearl quickly gained notoriety and a whole lot of public sympathy. After all, she was just trying to see her dying mama. And, yes, Pearl did become a sort of figure for women’s rights! She was quite convincing in her argument that she “would never consent to be tried under a law she or her sex had no voice in making, or to which a woman had no power under the law to give her consent.” Pearl could not have used her situation more to her advantage if she had employed a publicity agent!

The Pearly Gates

Pearl HartPearl’s arguments weren’t convincing enough, however. She was found guilty and sentenced to five years in the Territorial Prison at Yuma. Joe Boot received a thirty-year sentence. The warden prepared a special cell for Pearl, which had a private garden and a mountain view.

In the end, Pearl served 18 months before being released. There are some stories that she was released because of a pregnancy that could not be explained, but I haven’t found any proof to back those claims.

When Pearl left prison, she joined her sister in Kansas City and starred in a play her sister had written, entitled “The Arizona Bandit”. When the play closed, Pearl disappeared from public life. She is believed to have died in Arizona sometime between 1950 and 1960.

Pearl Jam (Well, Sort Of)

Lady PearlSometimes when I am researching a topic, I find something that is so unexpected that I just sit at my computer shaking my head. This time, I found something so unexpected that I found myself shaking with laughter. It seems that there is a song about Pearl Hart. Noooooo, it’s not an old folksong. It’s a modern song, written and performed by (Get this!) Volbeat, a Danish, metal band! In 2013, they released an album entitled, Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies. Oh, my stars! One of the songs from that album is “Lady Pearl.” It would be enough to make me rethink my stance on Danish metal bands, if I had ever had an official stance to begin with. Do yourself a favor and take a listen. It just goes to show that you never know when a genuine Old West outlaw/shady lady/women’s lib activist is going to make a mark on the world!

Happy Trails, y’all!
Anita Lequoia